A Tale of Tears: Manager as Ethnographer

What are tears? What produces them? What is their function? These questions may be answered in two ways. First, we could regard tears as physical/chemical phenomena. In this sense, the answer could be as straight forward as saying that tears are made up of water, mineral salts, antibodies, and lysozyme. They may be produced by irritation or emotions, and they serve a protective function for the eye. 

The second way of answering these questions involves an interpretive or “thick” description[1] of what tears mean. They’re an expressive act. They can express intense, situation-specific emotions: intense joy at the birth of a child; great sadness at the death of one’s spouse; or feelings of total exhaustion and relief after surviving a harrowing escape from the destructive force of a tornado. This meaning is felt.  

The chemical composition of tears represents “thin” description and reductionistic meaning. It’s merely factual description of thing-like features. A thin description might treat the rapid movement of the eye lid as a blink. But if we perceive mischievous intent along with this eye movement, we might interpret it as a conspiratorial wink, i.e., thick description embedded in a complex context of cultural meaning.  

Beyond Tears

The insights from our discussion of tears and thick and thin meaning can apply elsewhere to interpersonal and organizational contexts. Consider how we can be surprised at the strong reactions of others to situations we view matter-of-factly as rather benign. A simple example may be how the thin factual data on an accounts receivable report don’t tell the full story of management’s concerns about a critical business issue.  

An account executive has a large customer whose receivables are now 90 days past due, but she says there are major new sales opportunities with this customer. Her boss and the general manager of the division express intense frustration and demand action on the receivables. The thick meaning of this issue for the two parties is quite different. Interpretations differ, consequential meaning is missed.  

Is management right, or is the account executive seeing something they’re missing that could solve management’s problem? Only more information and insight will answer that question. But even that may not be sufficient to resolve the disconnect in their perceptions and actions. Dialogue that aims at creating mutual understanding is needed, dialogue that ends with more than coercive action.  

Engagement is the Answer

In personal relationships, dignity and respect for the person are to be expected. Intimacy, trust, and love depend upon this recognition of one another’s personhood. But it’s really not altogether different at work when you think about it. When we take an interest in others and value their experience and what they have to say, they feel more engaged. As a result, we’re more likely to operate from shared value commitments.  

Thin description and reductionistic meaning are useful and often sufficient as a means of informing one another of key measures of performance. Indeed, the thicker meaning and significance of these data must be assumed to be implicitly understood much of the time. But this assumption becomes riskier as we let the time grow between the deeper, alignment-checking conversations that produce thick meaning.

Clifford Geertz introduced these terms (thick and thin description) to characterize what we must do in order to adequately analyze and understand a culture (i.e., ethnography). Well, leaders and executives must not only understand their culture, they are responsible for building a healthy, adaptive culture. So perhaps they need to practice a bit of ethnography too.


[1] American anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, describes the use of thick description in Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture (1973).

Assertiveness as Transparency

One of the more familiar ways of characterizing assertiveness is by differentiating it from aggressiveness and passivity (table below). Assertiveness is also described in terms of its proper uses in self-advocacy and the resolution of conflict. In those discussions of assertiveness, we hear about how inhibitions or defensiveness can interfere with assertive styles of expression. That’s all important and valuable information. But I’ll forgo those treatments of the subject in favor of painting a positive picture of how the proper expression of emotions, values, and authenticity can generate a kind of transparency essential to assertiveness. It’s an approach that makes the task of assertive communications easier, more natural.  

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Quite simply, the most direct path to uninhibited assertion of our true experience is the free expression of our feelings. Because we first know what is important – what we are attracted to, offended by, and care most about – through our feelings. They’re intuitive feelings, felt ways of knowing, less abstract, more immediate. The meaning of this experience arises and registers in a context.  

It’s not yet articulate conceptual knowledge. Still, it’s potential to become such can be recognized by others. For they too have had such feelings that compel their attention and demand to be examined. But it’s incumbent upon us to articulate the meaning of this intuitively felt experience if we are to share it and make it known to others. That, of course, is the function of dialogue, to coax expression of intuitive knowledge.  

Of course, some situations are more consequential than others, so when is it most critical to express our felt sense of things? It’s when we feel that something important is at stake. It’s when we feel the presence of a value. And that takes us to the next step toward asserting felt meaning.   


I define values for our present purposes quite simply and by reference to the Oxford Dictionary: In singular form value means, “The regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something;” and in plural usage, values signify values, “principles or standards of behavior one's judgement of what is important in life.”  

Recent philosophical treatment of values,[i] in this sense, suggests that people (not things) are the bearers of value through our beliefs and actions. Our values are historically shaped by culture and experience, but some values, like the “sacredness of the person,” dignity, and basic human rights seem universal in their claims upon us, even as we enact them differently across cultures.   

Reflectively clarifying the values that underlie our feelings, sometimes first individually, but also together in dialogue helps us understand the “why” and power of our “strong evaluations,”[ii], those that arouse our emotions. Often the words to express our feelings and values come slowly – it requires patience. 


Revealing our experience, even as we’re seeking to understand what it’s telling us (it’s meaning) takes courage. For in the process of disclosing our experience more freely, we reveal that we do not have all the answers, or the justifications and explanations, for feeling as we do. Nevertheless, we are able to trust that by attempting to express the meaning of our experience – the what and why of it – we are being real. 

Of course, we’re more likely to take this risk when we are interested in sharing our experience to advance dialogue and foster mutual understanding. And if that is reciprocated in the response of others, they will be seeking to understand, not through argument or challenge, but initially by helping coax forth the words to adequately express our experience. So, we initiate this approach to assertiveness with faith. 

It’s not a religious faith per se. Rather, it’s a belief that more often than not timely sharing and openness of this kind will be seen as the courage to be vulnerable in the service of some greater good. And when that intention is seen, it tends to soften hearts and open minds. 


The courage to pursue this transparent style of expression makes more timely communication possible. And it does not compromise our freedom to arrive at a strategic position or present a rational argument at some point. But by not rushing to a position, and by sharing our impressions and experience in a more spontaneous way, it helps separate meaning-seeking from decision-making.   

When our meaning-seeking actions are shared it opens rather than closes our access to insights and ideas. If we are confident enough to share these “raw” data freely, we’ll usually be rewarded with a better ability to assert a well-considered position when it’s time for arguments and decision-making. As we practice this approach, we become less guarded and learn to speak more directly. 

In some political negotiations or business negotiations “clever” and covert strategies may seem attractive. But if the assertiveness you seek concerns how to work well together in an ongoing effort and in ongoing relationships of collaboration, “clever” can often inspire mistrust and backfire.


[i] See Hans Joas, The Genesis of Values (2000): University of Chicago Press. Also by Joas, The Sacredness of the Person (2013): Georgetown University Press.

[ii] See Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (1989): Cambridge University Press. Also by Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (1991): Harvard University Press.

You Never Listen!

Okay, true enough, this complaint is perhaps more commonly heard between partners or in family life than at work from a co-worker. But this is a prime example of how some interpersonal practices have valuable cross-cutting relevance to relationships in both parts of life. So, why pass up the opportunity to hone skills at home that will also serve you well in your career? 

The Core Issue: Causing Others to Feel Heard

If you are getting this feedback (that you never listen), you are probably missing the mark, or you’ve missed the mark enough in the past that others have come to assume it’s a challenge to truly get your undivided attention. The problem, then, is that even if you decide to begin paying more attention when others talk about things that are important to them, they may not notice, they may not notice it. They may just repeat the refrain, “You never listen!” And when you hear that, you may be thinking, “Yes I am. That’s unfair!” 

The Challenge: Disconfirming the Other’s Working Hypothesis

Don’t get mad, get smart! You have both created this pattern of behavior – it does take two to tango. So, now you must engage your partner (or your co-workers) in ways that disconfirm their operating beliefs or working hypotheses. If they are covertly (unconsciously) holding this belief about what it’s like to communicate with you, it’s your job to undo that belief system. How? By weakening its credibility, by acting in ways that defy that belief. 

A Simple 3-Step Solution: Let Them Know Things are Different

Example: Your partner (or colleague) engages you in conversation. You notice an earnest intensity, perhaps growing tension. You hypothesize: “I think she believes I am not listening, not fully hearing her, not fully understanding her.”  You could say, “Hey, just want you to know that I‘m listening.” But that is saying, not doing. And as we all know, walking the walk beats talking the talk every time. So, try this simple 3-step strategy: 

1.       I can see this is important to you.

2.       I want to make sure I am hearing you, your concerns (or point of view).

3.       So, lets slow this down a bit. Say a bit more about what you’re thinking and feeling

It’s Not Just the Verbal: How You Say It Matters

Eye contact, tone of voice, pace of speech – slow your own speech even as you suggest slowing down the conversation. Your total message is one of focus, care, attentiveness, patience, and deference. Yes, deference. It’s a moment of respect toward others in conversation. And then, the active elements of listening – allowing the other an unrushed opportunity to finish their thoughts, asking clarifying question (different from asking others to justify themselves), and then summarizing or at least reflecting the meaning and feelings you are hearing along the way. 

Isn’t that Just a Way of Being “Nice” (or Phony)?

It could be if your goal is simply to placate the other. But if we also hypothesize that effective listening can produce informed and considered judgment, and that it usually results in wiser, more effective action than shooting from the hip on important matters, then we should give this practice time to prove itself. We should be learning how to use this practice to greatest effect. We should notice how it affects the ease and quality of engagement with others, if it makes conversation and collaboration more effective. 

Recommendation: The Proof is in the Pudding

Try it for a week. Use the 3-step strategy. Learn from your practice. Remember what John Dewey the philosopher of education taught us: “You don’t learn from experience, but from your reflection upon experience.” Notice how it makes you feel: more competent, less defensive, more patient, and more prudent? It’s a skill, but like any practiced and thoughtful change in our behavior, it affects our attitude, and it affects the way others experience our presence and impact. See how it works for you!



Executive Presence: A Short Course

Several years ago I developed an assessment of executive presence for use with leaders. It became quite popular, widely used, and helpful. In the course of doing that work, it became clear to me that developing one’s executive presence, could become a form of adaptive, role-based identity development. As such, it could involve a further shaping of the person’s character, judgement, and approach to action.


Know what you value and how your values align with your goals and actions. We can sort some of this out through private reflection, but doing it in dialogue with others works even better. When concretely examined in this way, we’re brought into close contact with our most vital strivings in life. It’s almost always also an act of reconciliation that restores or at least bolsters fidelity to our heartfelt beliefs and priorities. 

And when this is done, why wouldn’t we want to act from a consciousness of these bearings? Wouldn’t doing so present us with greatest sincerity and integrity? Would it not also express the kinder angels of our nature? In doing this, we discover just how necessary such reexamination of self, life, and what is most important us is. Virtue is never gained once and for all, not for we mortals.  


Engaging in our role-based duties and guided by a consciousness of what is good, right, and proper, we see more clearly. We recognize moments of confusion and frustration, our own and others. Rather than sweeping past them, we consider them, without bracing or resisting, to see what they hold. In this way, the broader context and meaning come into view and pathways of informed action arise.  

And we’re then reminded that prudential wisdom favors the curious and receptive mind. Even as we welcome the ease of adaptive habits, we allow ourselves to notice the unease evoked by novel conditions for which they’re unsuited. New answers and decisions, those not yet born, require that we see how some habits now fail us. We see the new only when we first stop looking for what we expect or want to see. 


All action expresses, asserts, and effects something. We can never fully discern the contingencies we will meet. But if our action is communicative and includes, involves, and coordinates the intentions and acts of all relevant actors, we’ll be best positioned to see and prudently respond to the contingencies that unfold before us. Strategic action is iterative, and it’s adaptively reasserted through execution.   

Is our character such as to make others trust, believe, speak honestly, share their feelings? And is our judgment free enough of fear, frustration, and arrogance to discern things as they really are? Are we, any of us who lead, formally or informally, contributing to this tenor of mind? If we can answer these questions in the affirmative, our approach to action will be more favorable, more adaptive.

Affection, Reflection, Responsibility

The flow of these three moments in the course of human action are quite common but often go unnoticed. We feel something that registers with significance (affect). It’s important. It compels our attention because it signals that something of value is at stake. Upon reflection, this felt value becomes a sentiment whose meaning - moral, prudential, or vital - provides us with reasons to care deeply. And in caring deeply, we form commitments of responsibility to act in fidelity to these values, for reasons that warrant risk-taking or sacrifice.

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This course of action is something we might experience individually, but it’s also something we engage in interactively with others. And when we do, we may face emotionally-charged differences in thought or belief that put us at odds with one another.  

It’s tempting to see this as a difference in ideas that should be settled rationally – let the best ideas win the day! But our values, sentiments, and the committed sense of responsibility they spawn are more complex than that. The reasons we care about are as much or more reasons of the heart than reasons of rational-logical discourse or argumentation.  

And this highlights one of the more notable distinctions between responsibility and accountability. The former is rooted in internal, value-based commitments that have won over our heart. The latter, accountabilities, are the role-based duties we have to others, to stakeholders to whom we are accountable in virtue of choosing to adopt a role (as partner, colleague, manager, parent). Of course, our responsibilities and accountabilities need not be in conflict.  

However, if we are to be a person of integrity, it is just these sometimes-competing pulls that we must reconcile, within our selves and between one another. And that’s where a unique kind of discourse is required. It’s better described as dialogue really, or even more simply as conversation. We must provide the “back story” that has affected us, the course of reflection and the sentiments arising from it that have moved us to care and take a stand.  

It’s not an argument, nor must there be an insistent tone. Even less are these qualities called for when we adopt an openness and receptivity to being affected by the stories of others. For by suspending argument, we are more likely to discover common reasons to care about the issues or matters at hand. Then, if there is compromise, it’s more likely to be a compromise that preserves the cause to which we are all committed.